Online CBRN awareness training — Five lessons learned

The challenge
Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) incidents pose a rising threat to global safety and security. Many industries such as mining, pharmaceuticals, and health care rely on these materials to make the products or deliver the services all of us use every day, but these same materials can cause great harm in the event of an industrial accident or deliberate misuse. Unfortunately, many countries do not have the resources to prepare themselves adequately to respond to this threat. Equally troubling is the fact that international training and assistance programs are also under budgetary pressure, with many lacking the resources to develop the sustained follow-on training and cooperation necessary to address this threat fully.

The Solution
One way to address this challenge is through technology. We are living in the midst of an education revolution. For example, Stanford University in the United States recently offered a so-called Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) in computer science to any student with an internet connection. The result was an astonishing class enrollment of more than 150,000 students from around the world. Such online training seems almost tailor made to address the challenges mentioned above. Training platforms and software are free to use for both trainers and recipients, and publicly available content sharing services such as YouTube or WordPress allow training materials to be hosted indefinitely at no cost to the user or the developer. Finally, online formats allow for easy and centralized modification and updating of course materials. This ensures materials are current and conform to international best practices.
Recognizing these advantages, in April of 2012 the European Union (EU) Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence (CoE) Initiative (EU CBRN CoE)(1) issued a call for proposals to develop an online CBRN awareness course. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies – in Monterey, California – was selected to create the course which is currently in its pre-release version ( What follows are five lessons we learned in creating “Project 10” for the CBRN community.

Five Lessons Learned
# 1 Know your audience

The first and most important task in developing online training is to identify the training audience. Besides the obvious role this plays in curriculum development, the audience also drives how the content is presented and marketed. It is counterintuitive, but a small audience is much harder to reach and market to than a large audience because it has a narrower preference for training. A group of medical doctors, for example, might only be interested in a course if it corresponds to their specific specialty. A large audience is much easier to reach, but there is a risk of watering down the course content to the point that the training value is diminished.
The solution is to work closely with the existing set of contacts in a country. Project 10 relied heavily on the EU CBRN Centres of Excellence Regional Secretariats coordinators.(2) Working through these officers allowed us to reach out directly to the Regional Secretariats and the corresponding National Focus Points – points of contact established by the host nations themselves – which narrowed the target audience for the courseware to officials most in need of this type of overview training.

# 2 Assign a Project Manager
When developing an E-learning course, there is an understandable impulse to rely on a lead instructor or subject matter expert to manage the course development. This approach works well for a traditional course, but less so for online learning. Unlike a traditional classroom course, an E-learning course is a hybrid of the educational process of curriculum design and the business process of software delivery. There are many pieces that must be integrated into a functioning whole, and must be done so on time and on budget. To accomplish this, strong project management planning and implementation skills are required and one project leader should be assigned to ensure consistency and unity of effort.

# 3 Use an Instructional Designer
Asynchronous E-learning models using pre-recorded lectures work well for introductory courses. They do not require instructor interaction, and students are able to learn at their own pace and spend more time with the course materials. The danger of such a semi-automated course is it can come across as simplistic or too standardized. To avoid this, online course managers should include an instructional designer as part of the project team. Instructional designers are experts in adult learning and can help to ensure course materials and assessments take full advantage of the online medium while maintaining the optimal flow and sequence of course content to improve learning. They also serve as valuable referees between subject matter and technology experts, helping to maintain balance between engaging course content and technical feasibility.

# 4 Mind the Technology
The explosion of free and standardized open-source software is a boon for E-learning. Today there is no need to use expensive and complicated commercial software or hosting services to conduct E-learning courses. Popular free blogging platforms such as WordPress offer a suite of sophisticated course management tools, and numerous video hosting sites such as Youtube or Dailymotion allow course lectures to be hosted and viewed for free.
While these technologies certainly make creating an E-learning course cheaper and easier, they do not remove the need for technical expertise. To be successful, the technical and instructional teams must work side-by-side. Video editing, website coding and patching, and software compatibility issues are only a few of the tasks that the technical team must be prepared to address. If the technical team is integrated into the instructional development process at the very beginning, many of the technical difficulties can be addressed and resolved before they become major obstacles.

# 5 Allow Plenty of Time
A final key to success is to allow sufficient time to develop and fully test the E-learning course. Unlike traditional courses, E-learning requires instructors to spend significantly more time preparing and presenting materials. For example, a video lecture may require several separate filming sessions as well as the preparation of a complete written transcript. In addition, explanations and questions that work well in a live session may have to be changed or adapted to suit video lectures. The technical team may also require more time than they are used to as they try to find optimal video and software solutions to convey the entirety of the instructional materials. Our team, for example, found an elegant solution for an online quizzing feature, only to discover later that our Arabic translations caused it to malfunction. When working with complex materials and new technologies, such difficulties are as unpredictable as they are inevitable. Recognizing this fact and building extra time into the project schedule at the outset is the best way to ensure project success.

Online courses can provide a cost-effective and sustainable training solution for partner nations. Free software solutions and expanding internet access means even the most remote government outpost can today have access to training materials developed and presented by world-class experts.

To take advantage of this E-learning revolution requires an up-front investment of technical expertise, planning, and project management skills beyond that required for traditional classroom training. The results, however, can be leveraged in ways that far exceed what is possible in a classroom. The ultimate success of this or any other training effort lies with the people reached and the contacts developed. With their reach, flexibility, and sustainability, E-learning courses offer a new and powerful tool for engagement.

The author

Bryan Lee is the Interim Deputy Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) where his work focuses on Eurasian nonproliferation and new media analytical tools. A retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, he has developed and managed numerous cooperative training programs for the U.S. government in the fields of counter-proliferation and anti-terrorism.

1 The EU CBRN CoE Risk Mitigation Initiative enhances CBRN policies and capabilities by creating a network of regional initiatives to promote and support the development and implementation of national CBRN policies. It aims at strengthening regional security by increasing local ownership, local expertise and long-term sustainability. This includes sharing good practices and capabilities, developing guidelines as well as identifying, collecting, analysing and deploying resources to respond to the needs identified by partner countries. The initiative also facilitates the identification and implementation of projects and ensures that capacity building is part of a coordinated and sustainable approach.
The EU CBRN CoE Initiative is funded by the European Commission and implemented in cooperation with the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC). The European External Action Service is also involved in the follow-up of the initiative. The initiative is developed with the technical support of relevant international and regional organisations, the EU Member States and other stakeholders, through coherent and effective cooperation at the national, regional and international level.

2 The EU CBRN CoE Regional Secretariats ensure cooperation and coordination with partner countries and are responsible for supporting them with the identification of needs, the formulation of regional project proposals, the development of national action plans and the implementation of projects. The EU CBRN CoE initiative currently involves 51 countries in 8 regions of the world (African Atlantic Façade; Central Asia; Eastern and Central Africa; Gulf Cooperation Council Countries; Middle East; North Africa; South East Asia; and South East Europe, Southern Caucasus, Moldova and Ukraine).